Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More on Ahimsa

This week: another perspective on Ahimsa, or non-violence/non-harming.

Many of my students already know the saga of my sore shoulder. Last fall, I put my son, Abel, up on my shoulders for a walk around the Farmers' Market. Bad idea. He had grown just a little bit too heavy for that, and I ended up with a bad muscle spasm in my upper back/neck/shoulder area.

This had happened before, so I did the usual home treatments -- ice, rest, ibuprofen . . . and monthly massage therapy. Plus a daily dose of stretching. Instead of getting better, my shoulder got worse and worse. By December, it hurt so much that I had a hard time falling -- or staying -- asleep at night.

I'm a yoga teacher -- I'm supposed to teach people how to make their bodies and minds feel better -- and yet there I was suffering through my yoga classes, wincing through any posture that involved putting weight on my right arm or shoulder.

As the new year arrived, I made a pledge to take better care of myself. It was going to be challenging, especially if I had new students in class, but I decided that I would flat-out avoid any posture that aggravated my shoulder injury. No Down Dog, no Dog & Cat, nothing in Table position at all. It was a big challenge -- but for the most part, I was able to do it (except for occasional instances where a new student really needed me to demonstrate). I would still teach those poses in my daily classes -- just not do them myself.

I resolved to wait three months before trying Down Dog again. But by the end of the second month, my shoulder was feeling well enough to begin putting weight on it again. And so over the course of the next month, I slowly eased back into my regular practice. And so far, so good!

This is what Ahimsa is all about. Not harming one's body. Giving one's body what it needs and avoiding what might make it feel worse. For me, the challenge was more in "How am I going to effectively teach these poses without actually doing them?" than the actual avoidance of the poses myself (which felt a bit like a vacation for me, truth be told).

You can apply the principle of Ahimsa to your yoga practice, even when you don't have an injury. Perhaps the person seated next to you in class is doing a more advanced variation of a posture. You want to "keep up with" that person so you do it too, even though it makes your body hurt in a way that feels more like a strain than a stretch. Stop! Wait! That's harming yourself! Practice Ahimsa and listen to your body. If you want to do more in a posture, proceed slowly, breathe deeply, and avoid straining. It's not always easy to keep one's ego out of one's yoga practice, but if you see it as a way of caring for yourself actively not-harming your body (or mind, or spirit), you might feel a little bit more "in control."

Be compassionate with yourself.

p.s. In case you're wondering how my shoulder ultimately got "fixed" . . . Amazingly, I changed the way I was sleeping, and it cured itself, practically overnight. I had observed that while I was lying in my son's bed, propped up on pillows while reading to him, my shoulder felt much better. But when I would lie down in my own bed, on my foam contour pillow, the pain would flare up. I had always been a back-to-side sleeper, but the shoulder injury forced me to stay on my back all night. The contour pillow wasn't providing enough support. I switched to a traditional "fluffy" pillow and slept through the night for the first time in months! That way, my shoulder was able to rest and relax throughout the night, and the deep spasm within it finally released itself. Ahhhhhh . . .